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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

As you sit down tomorrow to enjoy your turkey dinner, surrounded by smiling family members and with the prospect of pie in the not-so-distant future, people in Japan will be sitting down to a plateful of … whale.

"But wait," you ask, "aren't whales protected by the International Whaling Commission, which Japan is a member of? And what about the moratorium in the South Pacific that's been in place since 1963?"

Well, it seems that Japan is more interested in continuing cultural "traditions" (more on that later) than protecting the many whale species that inhabit the Earth's oceans.

On Monday, a Japanese fleet set out on the country's largest whaling expedition ever, hoping to bag nearly 1,000 minke whales, 50 fin whales and, perhaps most horrifying of all, up to 50 humpback whales.

As the ship embarked, "Popeye the Sailor Man" played over speakers, and the ship's crew toasted the occasion with beer. The day before, Japanese officials had encouraged their fellow countrymen to continue the whale-eating culture, according to an article from The Associated Press.

Personal confession time: I am a ceteceaphile, a bona fide whale lover. The thought of whales being harpooned chokes me up. Sea World saddens me. "Free Willy" still makes me cry, as Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There" blasts through the TV speakers and Jesse's hand reaches for his friend (even though Willy, as an orca, is not a true whale, but a member of the dolphin family).

But back to real life and the real-life problem.

The International Whaling Commission bans commercial whaling, but it allows hunting of whales for scientific purposes. This is the guise Japan is using to justify its massive hunt. Japan's Fisheries Agency says it wants to study the whales' reproductive and feeding habits, but just about everyone has recognized the Japanese plan to sell the whales for food. Wouldn't it make more sense to study reproductive and feeding patterns on living whales, which, as a matter of fact, reproduce and eat?

But hey, that's just my opinion. I'm no scientist. But I'm also not going to be eating whale any time soon, which brings us back to Japan's cultural tradition. I recognize the Japanese have been enjoying whale dishes for centuries. I won't argue the ethics of it, but I will argue with the method. Whales used to be caught with nets and spears. It took an entire village worth of men to haul the catch back to shore. The whale had to be gutted by hand. It was indeed a huge ordeal. There's no doubt this kind of whaling would have been sustainable and could shape cultural traditions.

But that's not how it is anymore. I won't disgust you with too much exposition about how whales are handled after their slaughter nowadays, but the harpoon and huge whaling ships have completely changed the shape of whaling and the "tradition" surrounding it. I will say, however, that the harpoons used in commercial whaling have to be long enough to penetrate through the whale's layers of blubber. Some harpoons are equipped with bombs on the heads. Often, the first shot isn't enough to kill the marine mammal.

And you thought getting your flu shot hurt.

Probably the best defense the whales have is the environmental group Greenpeace, which has sent out its protest ship Esperanza in search of the Japanese ships to try to disrupt their hunt.

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There are no "whale farms" where Japan can raise whales for consumption like we do with cows and chickens. Since so many species are slow-moving, it is nearly impossible for them to defend themselves. Some whales may be heartier than others, but not many have the tenacity of Moby Dick. And it's even easier for the Captain Ahabs to track them down, thanks to sonar technology.

The whales are then brought back to the mainland and sold off to restaurants and individual customers. Whale meat is sometimes served in school cafeterias, despite its high levels of mercury - unhealthy for growing kids.

Japan should end its whaling practices once and for all. Whaling populations are only beginning to recover from pre-commercial whaling levels. Does Japan want to bring the gentle giants back to the brink of extinction?

Jessica Holland is a senior majoring in German and economics. She is the Alligator's opinions editor.

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